Newspaper article International New York Times

Helen Bamber, Psychotherapist to Torture Victims, Dies at 89

Newspaper article International New York Times

Helen Bamber, Psychotherapist to Torture Victims, Dies at 89

Article excerpt

Ms. Bamber devoted seven decades of her life to helping more than 50,000 victims of torture in 90 countries, including Holocaust survivors.

Helen Bamber, whose volunteering to comfort broken survivors of a Nazi concentration camp when she was 19 inspired her to devote her next seven decades to helping more than 50,000 victims of torture in 90 countries, died on Aug. 21 in London. She was 89.

Her death was announced by the Helen Bamber Foundation, a British charity.

Started in 2005, the organization grew out of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which Ms. Bamber started in 1985. The foundation emerged from the Medical Group of the British Section of Amnesty International, which she and a small group of colleagues began in the early 1970s. The actress Emma Thompson is the current president of the Bamber foundation.

Together, through a "holistic" combination of medicine and psychological, social and physical therapies, the organizations have helped torture victims recover a sense of identity and purpose after being subjected to often unspeakable horrors: electrical shocks to genitals, beatings on the bottom of feet, nonlethal hangings.

Ms. Bamber said the worst toll of torture was psychic -- "the act of killing a man without dying," a survivor once told her. Torture, she wrote in an autobiography for her foundation, constitutes "a total perversion of all that is good in human relationships."

"It is designed to destroy not only the physical and psychological integrity of one individual, but with every blow, with every electrode, his or her family and the next generation," she continued. "The body betrays and is often discarded, a body to be hated for its scars and injuries, a body which is a constant reminder even if there are no scars or remaining injuries."

Her approach was to treat the whole person, often in group therapy, which she saw as giving alienated victims a sense of community. She recruited dozens of professionals to treat more than 2,000 victims a year, and worked with many patients herself as a psychotherapist -- which she became through experience, she said, rather than an academic degree.

Her method involved revisiting victims' worst horrors and letting them "vomit" them out.

"You have to move into the torture chamber with them," she told the British newspaper The Observer in 1999. "You almost have to be tortured with them."

The next step, she told The Irish Times in 1995, is to work with the "noble and good" qualities that can enable a victim to survive. It was enough, she said, to take a victim's story, hold it and say, "Yes, I believe you."

She was born Helen Balmuth on May 1, 1925, the offspring of an arranged marriage who was often sickly as a girl. Her father, a Jew whose family had fled pogroms in Poland, was obsessed with the rise of Hitler in Germany and read sections of Hitler's manifesto, "Mein Kampf," to his family. …

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